Should I Tell You What I Really Think?: My Insignificance Is My Liberation.

[Disclaimer: What I write here is really too simple and consists of a lot of shorthand. Truthfully, I’m finding it difficult to translate 45 years of study and research into a few lines in a blog post. If you think it’s not working please let me know. Let me know too how I could better communicate and translate my decades of experience.

Analogy. This post consists of an analogy. It’s not perfect by any means, but it may help put our obsession with individuality into perspective. It seems to be clear that every human is a separate material entity. As Otto Rank puts it in The Trauma of Birth, we are objects to other people and in fact, the process of objectification starts when an infant realizes that it is separate from its mother. My view deviates from Rank’s and follows one proposed by Norbert Elias from his books, The Civilizing Process, What is Sociology? and others. [Elias is the subject of a future blog post] Elias’ view is that we are best considered as processes rather than as things. That said, I want to offer here my own strange take on human life using an analogy that should be fairly easy to understand.

So, for me, a human individual is akin to one cell in a human body. The human body, in this case, is analogous to the sum total of all humans on the planet. Like I said, the analogy, like all analogies, falls short of qualifying as a perfect equivalency yet at its core there is a simple truth to be had, I think.

We each have trillions of individual cells in our bodies. I read somewhere that every cell in our body is replaced every seven years or so. That’s not entirely true, but mot of our cells regularly die and some percentage are replaced on a regular basis. Eventually, of course, the cellular organization we call ourselves is no longer viable and we call that death. Death, however, is a slow process that begins the day we are conceived and goes on some time after the doctor declares us dead (and until cremation). How is this analogous to the species as a whole? Well, millions of people died in wars in the 20th Century but that didn’t prevent the species from carrying on. An individual human death is about as significant to the species as one cell dying in our bodies. That may seem harsh, but it’s real. People come and go. Millions of people die every year while millions are born. The species hardly notices. We do care as individual people. There is no doubt about that. When we have someone close to us die, that affects us, but the billions of other people on this planet take no notice at all.

Our cells work together to keep us alive and functioning, but the loss of any individual cell has little effect on the whole body. I can slap my wrist and kill a few hundred or thousand skin cells, but my body doesn’t really mind too much. It carries on like nothing happened. If I cut off my arm, I can still live. We can lose a lot of cells and still survive.

When I was teaching I used to torment my students with a standard lecture at the beginning of each term. This lecture emphasized the importance of society and the inherent interconnections we have to other people and to social organization. In a society that glorifies the individual, it can be humbling to consider just how dependent we are on others, most of whom we have never met.

In my lecture, I’d start off by saying that an individual human being doesn’t exist, cannot exist. We only exist in relation to others. We are the product of a most basic social act, the sex act. After that, we require the assistance of others to stay alive. We need to be fed, clothed, washed and looked after for many years. I argue in fact that the dependencies never stop. We are social animals in every sense of the term. We depend on others for everything. The language(s) we speak, the values we have, our ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ are a consequence of our social relations. One cannot be successful in a vacuum. Not only that, but in our world, with some exceptions of course, we depend on others to make our clothes, grow our food, provide us with electricity, build our homes, make sure our poop goes away when we flush the toilet and fresh water gets pumped to our faucets.  We also depend on people for companionship, for hugs, for approbation. The evidence is strong that if we don’t get hugs and the company of others as babies a quarter of us die before the age of four. Our interdependencies ARE us. We don’t exist as things, but as processes interwoven with many other processes we call organizations be they families, neighbourhoods, restaurants, churches, mosques, synagogues, provinces, countries and workplaces among many others. That’s why we volunteer to die for these organizations, we sacrifice our lives to them, we bow down to them, we feel undying affinity with them.

Of course, very few people think about these things. We are encouraged from a very early age to be independent, self-contained, and capable of making our own decisions. But, unfortunately, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Individuality is an illusion, just as a single human cell does not and cannot live by itself; it only exists in relationship to other cells and to the whole body.

As humans we tend to consider ourselves special. In fact, some people believe that we are created in the image of a god or other. We aspire to live forever and create elaborate stories to convince ourselves of the veracity of our beliefs in immortality. Sadly, we are truly insignificant as individuals for the survival of the species, as insignificant as an individual cell in my body is to my life. That said, for me, there is a sense of release and comfort that goes along with that realization. My insignificance is my liberation.

More later.


Escape 24: So, where do we go from here?

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Escape 24:  So, where do we go from here?

At the end of Chapter 8 Becker has a short section on transference.  Freud wrote a book on transference, a phenomenon he observed in clinical practice where a patient would transfer to his doctor feelings she once had towards her parents.  Patients were quick to abandon their egos to the new power figure in their lives.  Others, among them Adler, Rank, Jung and Fromm extended Freud’s observations.  It’s because of them, Becker argues that “today we can say that transference is a reflex of the fatality of the human condition.  Transference to a powerful other takes care of the overwhelmingness of the universe.” (p.127).  Transference is an incredibly powerful impulse.  How is it that “men were so sheeplike when they functioned in groups – how they abandoned their egos to the leader, identified with his powers just as they did once…

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Escape 23: Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.

Just let the title of this post sink in. Then ask yourself if it’s reasonable to think that the promises of victory over evil and death are possible. Meditate on that for a bit. Review history books. Read Becker.

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Escape 23: Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.

Since there is no secular way to resolve the primal mystery of life and death, all secular societies are lies…Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.  But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean revolutionary mortals, can keep such a promise…it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death.  For secular societies the thing is ridiculous…cultures are fundamentally and basically styles of heroic death denial. 

 If each historical society is in some ways a lie or a mystification, the study of society becomes the revelation of the lie…We can then ask empirically, it seems to me, what are the costs of such denials of death, because we know how these denials are structured into styles of life.  These…

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Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Escape 22: The Science of Man after Hitler

I have lingered on guilt, sacrifice, heroism, and immortality because they are the key concepts for the science of man in society that is emerging on our time. 

 Sociology has largely ignored this kind of analysis because it’s been caught up with it’s own immortality-project, it’s own definition of itself as a structural or constructionist endeavour.  History, evolution and process are not welcome in its parlour.  In my younger days I thought that if I wrote interesting and relevant material I would be taken seriously.  I was a bit naïve.  Sociologists could ignore Hitler or Mao as aberrations.  Becker mentions two sociologists who bucked the trend, Kenneth Burke and Hugh Dalziel Duncan.  I don’t know their work.  It was never on the curriculum when I studied at university.  Although Burke died it 1995 he was born in 1897 so his work…

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Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

Yup, for most of us hell is other people, but not just any other people. Read on.

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

This is going to be a shorter post than the last few…which have been way too long.  I fear I’m getting pedantic in my old age.  Say it ain’t so.  I’ll carry on now, pedantry or not.  One positive thing I’m getting out of this is that my typing skills are improving, if nothing else.

So, in the last post we looked at Becker’s use of the term ‘sacrifice’.  This post is about a related term, scapegoating.  Scapegoating is a form of sacrifice…in the early days using a real goat.  Now we do it with people, mostly people we blame, realistically or not, for all of our troubles.  Becker opens this part of Chapter 8 with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, who said “Hell is other people.”  I need to put that on a T-shirt, damn it!

From the beginning…

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Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

Just read it.

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

No, this post isn’t exactly about Star Wars, but that movie is such a brilliant commentary on a power mega-machine gone mad that it could easily serve as a basis for the discussion here. In many ways, movie makers have been more intuitively in tune with the insanity of the world today than most intellectuals and politicians, of course. Maybe after I finish this Becker marathon, I’ll turn to how movies and books have given us insights into our basis fears of life and death.

Chapter 8 in Becker’s EFE is called The Nature of Social Evil.  It’s a very dense chapter in which Becker can now get to the nitty-gritty.  He’s laid the groundwork and summarizes it in the first paragraph of the chapter, which I reproduce here in its entirety.

We have seen with Rank that the driving…

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Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Does this ring a bell? From this post: In his conclusion that much of the misery on this planet is a consequence of our attempt to deny our animal nature, the question for Reich is: how could we so willingly give over [our] destiny to the state and the great leader? (p. 93) Because we’re such suckers for promises of prosperity and good times ahead if only we follow the great leader, the steady, thoughtful great leader. But, unfortunately, in attempts to avoid natural plagues and disasters by investing our trust in great leaders we unwittingly unleashed another plague brought on by our thoughtless allegiance and obedience to the politician.

Roger Albert - Always a Sociologist

Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Well, it looks like I may just get through this 30 day Becker marathon in 30 days.  I’m on Chapter 7 now, which starts on page 91.  Since there’s 170 pages in the book I’m close to half way there.

As noted earlier, Becker is the great synthesizer.  He gleans in a critical way the works of others to build his own model of how the world works.  Those ‘others’ include hundreds of scholars of all disciplines as can be verified by a glance at the bibliographic entries in his many books, but major influences have been Hocart, Huizinga, Brown and Rank.  The school of psychoanalysis to which Becker subscribes is the school, which broke away from Freud.  Rank was a special protégé of Freud’s but could not accept Freud’s Oedipus Complex and other aspects…

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